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Northeast Ohio Providers Scrambling To Save J&J Vaccines From Expiring

The demand for this vaccine never bounced back after the CDC determined it is safe. Northeast Ohio vaccine providers are trying to rapidly give out thousands of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines before they expire at the end of June. [pcruciatti / Shutterstock]
Northeast Ohio vaccine providers are trying to rapidly give out Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines before they expire at the end of June. [pcruciatti / Shutterstock]

Northeast Ohio hospitals, health departments and pharmacies are coming up with plans to prevent thousands of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine doses from going to waste at the end of the month.

Statewide, approximately 200,000 J&J doses will expire if not used by June 23, Gov. Mike DeWine said in a public plea to health officials on Monday. DeWine implored them to distribute as many of these vaccines as possible in the coming weeks and ensure doses with the soonest expiration dates are used first, according to a news release. 

Nearly 12,000 of those doses had been planned to be used at the Wolstein Center mass vaccination site at Cleveland State, according to an Ohio Department of Health (ODH) spokesperson.

Some Northeast Ohio hospitals and health departments are considering transferring their J&J doses to other providers throughout the state to use, offering the doses at special vaccination clinics, or planning mobile clinics and community events, officials said.

The state cannot legally give the extra doses to other states or countries to distribute, according to a news release from the governor's office.

The J&J vaccine, like many other vaccines, is frozen when shipped and must be used by a certain date after it is thawed. In this case, the J&J vaccine has a shelf life of three months, according to the manufacturer.

The vaccine glut is due in part to the federal pause on distribution of the J&J vaccine for 10 days in April, when six women developed rare blood clots after receiving the shot, officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually resumed the rollout after determining the risk of such clots was low and the vaccine was safe.

Still, the demand for this vaccine never bounced back to what it was before the pause, which resulted in a surplus of unused doses, said Dan Tierney, a spokesperson for Gov. DeWine.

“Most people who would have received J&J during the pause simply shifted to Pfizer or Moderna. Supply and demand took over from that point,” Tierney said via email.

The Summit County Health Department has 2,000 doses needing to be used by the June 23 expiration date as a direct result of the temporary pause, said Health Commissioner Donna Skoda.

The health department was using the J&J shot in its mass vaccination clinics at the county fairgrounds at that time, she said, and officials had to use Pfizer and Moderna during the pause.

“The 2,000 Pfizer and Moderna that we used during that time at the fairgrounds, we would have used up all of our J&J. So, it’s sort of like, the numbers add up,” Skoda said.

The health department and other Northeast Ohio vaccine providers are scrambling to figure out how to administer these doses quickly before they go to waste, she added.

Summit County health officials scheduled an extra vaccine clinic on Thursday and will give out grocery gift cards Friday as an incentive for people to get the shot, Skoda said. They will also bring J&J vaccines to other upcoming clinics and events and offer them to individuals instead of Pfizer or Moderna.

They’re also reaching out to other vaccine providers in the area, such as nursing homes, to see if they can take some of the doses and administer them before they go to waste at the end of the month, Skoda said.

“We’re worried,” she said. “We’ve asked all our partners, but the problem is, they’re trying to get rid of what they have, too.”

Ultimately, officials might have to get creative, she added.

"We’re even looking into, could we give a vial to a private physician’s office for the day?” Skoda said.

Cleveland Clinic has less than 3,000 J&J vaccines expiring June 23, according to hospital spokesperson Andrea Pacetti. The hospital system is working with the Ohio Department of Health (ODH) to see if they can transfer their doses to another Ohio provider outside of Cleveland Clinic, she said.

Additionally, the Clinic is running a J&J clinic this Thursday at Marymount Hospital from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Pacetti added.

The Cuyahoga County Board of Health is faring better than other providers because they did not order many shipments of the J&J vaccine due to low interest, said Health Commissioner Terry Allan.

The health board uses J&J vaccines primarily for people who are homebound, as well as incarcerated individuals, Allan said, and do not usually give out J&J in their drive-thru clinics.

The department has fewer than 100 doses left to give out, Allan said.

“The pause did affect people. When we came back online in our homebound program, we found that people … asked us what we were using,” he said. “People want choice, and so if we don’t want to miss the opportunity to vaccinate them, we’re trying to do whatever we can to provide them choice,”

The health board may accept and try to administer extra doses from other Ohio providers struggling to distribute their supply by the June 23 expiration date, he added.

“We could if need be, and what we would do is get into the network and find out who has them, and we would take what we needed," he said.

Board of health officials will continue distributing the single-dose shots in congregate settings and to homebound individuals, he said. They will also bring J&J doses to community clinics where second doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are being given out, and offer them to people who walk in to the clinic, Allan said.

If any extra doses go to waste after June 23, Skoda said it will be disappointing.

“First of all, the vaccine was in such shortage, and now they have to waste all these doses. It’s almost heartbreaking when you know, around the country, that you need it elsewhere. You need it around the world,” she said.

The last time Ohio received a shipment of J&J vaccines was May 10, according to distribution data from the CDC.

The doses expiring soon were received in March and April, according to ODH.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.